College & Workforce Readiness

Private High Schools in D.C. Ditch AP Courses

By Brenda Iasevoli — June 19, 2018 3 min read
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Eight independent Washington-area schools announced on Monday their decision to eliminate Advanced Placement courses by 2022.

Among the schools dropping AP courses is Sidwell Friends, the highly selective, Quaker school that Chelsea Clinton and Malia Obama attended. Sasha Obama still goes there.

The school leaders say AP training doesn’t foster the kind of thinking they would like their students to do. The courses “often stress speed of assimilation and memorization” at the expense of in-depth inquiry. “Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer a wider variety of courses that are more rigorous and enriching, provide opportunities for authentic engagement with the world, and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests,” the heads of the schools wrote in a statement.

The eight private schools also point out that the promise of AP classes, which were introduced in the early 1950s to allow ambitious students the opportunity to earn college credits and possibly even nab a degree earlier and at a lower cost, has never been fulfilled. The fact is that graduating from college in fewer than four years doesn’t happen often, according to the schools’ statement. What’s more, each college handles the awarding of credits for AP tests differently, with some top schools opting out altogether, according to the schools’ statement.

The College Board, the group that oversees the AP program, countered that the students at these very schools have earned over the past 10 years more than 39,000 credit hours at the colleges where they sent their AP scores. That amounts, according to the board, to nearly $59 million in tuition savings at top colleges.

“At a time when the placement, credit and admission benefits of AP have never been greater,” the College Board said, “it’s surprising that these schools would choose to deny their students these advantages.”

Yet the schools aren’t worried. A survey of 150 colleges and universities administered by the eight privat schools themselves, suggests the elimination of AP courses should have no adverse effects on students trying to get into college.

This isn’t the first time private schools have opted out of AP courses. Elite New York City college-preparatory schools like Fieldston, Dalton, and the Calhoun School did away with AP courses in 2001, 2003, and 2004, respectively. Then, in 2005, Scarsdale High School in New York became one of the most prominent public schools to phase out the college-prep courses.

Following its private-school predecessors, Scarsdale offers instead what are called Advanced Topics classes. Teachers of Advanced Topics courses are much freer to make decisions about what to include in the curriculum and can spend more time on topics of interest to students, according to Scarsdale High School principal Kenneth Bonamo. With AP classes off the table, the school has room for new offerings on subjects not covered on AP exams. For instance, Scarsdale will offer a new entrepreneurship class this fall, and a two-year-old class on international politics is going strong.

“I’m excited for these schools that now have latitude to meet students’ intellectual curiousity, and can allow teachers to invest their talents and their passions into subjects without worrying if the topics are covered in the AP curriculum,” Bonamo told Education Week.

Some Scarsdale High students continue to take AP exams, but the number has fallen over the past decade, according to Bonamo. Just 47 percent of Scarsdale High 12th graders took an AP exam in the 2015-2016 school year with an exam pass rate of 98 percent. And even without AP preparation, most of the school’s graduates (97 percent of the 363-member class of 2016) go on to four-year colleges and universities.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.